Chapter 5: This Is It

The whole point ….. is to show that the spiritual is not to be separated from the material, nor the wonderful from the ordinary. We need above all, to disentangle ourselves from habits of speech and thought which set the two apart, making it impossible for us to see that this –the immediate, everyday, and present experience–is IT, the entire and ultimate point for the existence of a universe. (Alan Watts, 1958, p. 11)

Alan Watts asserted that “the spiritual is not to be separated from the material.”  I think he is right.  However, we certainly do separate the spiritual from the material in our verbal behavior. Then we come to believe that the separation really exists and act according to that belief rather than in accord with reality. The reality is that “this is It.”

To me, “This is It” is somewhat equivalent to the fourth pathway in The Handbook to Higher Consciousness by Ken Keyes.  It says “I always remember that I have everything I need to enjoy the here and now, unless I am letting my consciousness be dominated by demands and expectations based on the dead past or imagined future.” In my own words: “‘What is’, here and now, is truth.” Nevertheless, I’ve spent way too much of my life rejecting the here and now and looking for “truth” elsewhere. However, that behavior (of looking elsewhere) got challenged out of existence (almost) by my failure to find work after I graduated from graduate school.

“Work” has been problematic for me as long as I can remember. As a kid, I rebelled against demands for obedience and tried to avoid the issue by getting a chore done before anyone ordered me to do it. Sometimes that didn’t work, and my refusals led to distressing conflicts. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to work – I actually enjoyed housecleaning, for example. What I hated was being bossed around and .criticized. 

In the American Heritage Dictionary, “work” is defined as “Effort directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.” “Play” is defined as “to occupy oneself in amusement, sport, etc.” They’re related in that they both refer to the way one occupies oneself. Obviously, work could also be play in that producing or accomplishing something is often amusing. However, frequently work is not amusing. Frequently, “work” means occupying oneself according to someone else’s demands and wishes rather than one’s own, often for the purpose of making money.

In our culture, that is often what work is. If we don’t inherit money, we each must work in order to purchase the basics of a lifestyle that is considered respectable. We also must work to certain specifications in order to obtain the esteem and approval of society in general. Early in life we often learn to see ourselves and appreciate ourselves based on the prestige of the roles we play, especially of the work we do. We often learn to value ourselves and others according to the social status and monetary value of our work. “Work” generally has something to do with evaluation and judgment. If evaluation and judgment are positive, work can be rewarding; but if evaluation and judgment are negative, work can be distressing and degrading.  In such a situation, a person may look for positive reinforcement in some other sphere.

Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior in terms of function such as “tact”, “mand”, “impure tact”, etc., is relevant here. Work involves some kind of motivative variable, some contingency that will reinforce one’s effort (i.e., what one does.) Money, esteem, approval, and supporting one’s family are as much motivative variables as are amusement, interest, and involvement with loved ones. Often money or approval are what one wants the most. Sometimes, however, one gets them at the cost of involvement with family, interests, and amusement. In such situations, it’s helpful for a person to become aware of what he/she values most.

Most of my work history has been at jobs that “came” to me. First, as a senior in High School, I worked as a nurse’s aide at a small country hospital where my mother was a charge nurse. I liked it. I liked taking care of people and having a function. I liked feeling that I was doing a good job. After my family moved to Grand Rapids, I stayed with a friend and worked as a waitress near the High School I had attended. I liked that also, but the owner let me go before I had to leave for college. I still don’t know if it was because she had to let someone go or if it was because she was disappointed with my work. I felt very bad about it and it was a blow to my confidence. After I started at Aquinas College, I worked for a short time at a shoe store and then at a Ben Franklin dime store. I didn’t like either one very much. Then I got a job as a nurse’s aide at GR Osteopathic Hospital where my mother was by then employed. Again, I liked it very much. I felt useful, confident, competent, and respected. I worked there until after I graduated from college, but I never wanted to be a nurse – I just liked working with people in a helpful way.

When I graduated from College, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought about working as an information agent overseas. I even took part of the test for it, but I don’t think I did very well. Anyway, the summer after I graduated, my Dad was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, so I took a job teaching Spanish at Cedar Springs High School. I had never wanted to be a teacher, but teachers were scarce at the time and they offered me the job before I even applied. I enjoyed many things about the job – the subject matter, the kids, the salary, etc. Also, it was certainly the most prestigious place in society that I had ever occupied up to that point. I wasn’t prepared, though, to be as good a teacher as I wanted to be. I had no teacher-training, and my spoken Spanish wasn’t fluent because I had never studied in a Spanish-speaking country. I did my best and felt good about my two years teaching there, but I still didn’t want to make teaching my career. I was so sure I didn’t want to teach that I didn’t even take advantage of an offer by the Director of Aquinas’s Education Department to observe my teaching in order to satisfy the requirements of Directed Teaching.

I got married after my first year of teaching and quit after the second year because I was pregnant. Between pregnancies, I taught at some Catholic elementary schools but didn’t like it much. Again, I liked the kids, but the teaching itself wasn’t very rewarding to me. The exception was my teaching at St. Anthony’s, seventh and eighth grades. There I got more involved in the community – I suppose because John also taught there and we went to church there. It felt like home to me much of the time, and I even liked teaching some classes — like science, history, and art. I thought I did a good job, so it was a great blow to my confidence when I wasn’t rehired. That happened after John had already started teaching in a public school and after my altercation with the janitor.

By that time, I had decided that I really wanted to be a teacher. I took the classes I needed to get my teaching certificate and did my directed teaching in English (a minor). It was difficult, to say the least, but it led to my eventual being hired at a new High School as a Spanish teacher. I had some good times while I taught there – there were some unforgettably talented students – but my lack of fluency in Spanish still bothered me. It was at the end of my first semester there that I spent three weeks in a Psychiatric Hospital. I returned to the classroom and felt positive about my work, but by the next year I realized that if I cared about myself and my family I would have to quit my job. Even though it was my own decision, leaving was still another blow to my confidence.

I tried to go back to teaching several years later when my kids were older, but I never felt comfortable at it. Part of my difficulty was that I no longer felt comfortable teaching as an authority figure in the way I had been taught – yet it was the only way I knew. I was eventually hired again at Cedar Springs High School, and again I worked with some super students and administrators. Still, I felt very out of place. And, although it was my own decision to leave and go back to College, when I left I felt like a failure.

Because of my work history (and other history, perhaps), I had never felt comfortable socially. I longed to fit-in as a valuable member of the community  I wanted to feel like I belonged. I thought that the field of Psychology would be the answer – the way for me to be successful. Psychology was compellingly interesting to me, and I believed that I would do well working with people on an individual basis. Graduate school was difficult and certainly had its traumatic moments, but in general it provided me a place to feel like I belonged. The classes were interesting and I got good grades. It was fun discussing interesting issues with colleagues. I liked having my own desk, access to parking, access to computers and e-mail, etc. I liked having a paid assistantship so that I didn’t feel like I was taking money away from my family. All in all, in graduate school I began to feel socially comfortable.

On the other hand, I worked harder and built up more personal stress (tension, worry, etc.) than was good for my health. I also had to conform to what was expected of me more than I like to. Nevertheless, when I graduated it felt like a great accomplishment to me. I expected to find a job as a therapist, or possibly as a college professor and/or researcher, and settle into life as a “contributing member of society”.   I wasn’t in a hurry, and even as one potential job after another fell through for one reason after another, I continued to expect that eventually my day would come. Now, several years after I graduated, now that John has retired, now that I’m getting social security, I doubt that I will ever work as a therapist or in the field of Psychology. I’m not particularly distressed about it – just somewhat disappointed.  I thought that work in Psychology would be a way for me contribute something to the world, but now few people even know that I have a doctorate in Psychology.

Instead, I had to learn that “this is it”, that the life I’m living is my contribution to the world.  Although it hasn’t always been easy, the years since I’ve graduated from grad school have been the most rewarding of my life. Sometimes when I thought about my situation, I tended to start saying to myself “I must be a failure” or “people must think I’m incompetent”, but I knew very well that it was just verbal behavior — not “the truth”. When I focused on the here and now, life was fine (or at least interesting). My grandkids were being born and then growing into children. My mother was ill and needed help. I was getting to know my brothers and sisters in a new way. I was taking guitar lessons, making new friends, biking, playing tennis. However, I still felt disappointed because I wasn’t working in the sense of “accomplishing something”.

I felt the disappointment most strongly in situations where people asked me about my work. I didn’t like having to explain. So I learned to avoid getting caught up in other people’s labels by responding very simply to the social question “Where are you working now?” by saying “I’m not working now”, and I didn’t get drawn in to justifying myself. As with other aspects of my verbal behavior, I attribute this ability to respond verbally to myself in a helpful way to what I have learned from Skinner’s analysis of language. With respect to my work situation, Skinner’s philosophy supports the realization “this is It” and what it means to me.

In the quote from Alan Watts at the beginning of this chapter, he says that “the spiritual is not to be separated from the material.” Steve Hayes develops that point from a Skinnerian perspective in an article “Making Sense of Spirituality” (1984) For me, this approach helped “make sense” of “being in general” (that is, “being” in which the material is not separated from the spiritual) better than any other verbalization about being that I have ever encountered.

Hayes provides a behavioral analysis of the matter/spirit verbal distinction by identifying the conditions under which such a distinction is made. In other words, he looks for the tact properties, “the physical conditions under which such concepts and distinctions might arise.” He observes that one can never see anything from a perspective other than one’s own. What one sees changes, but one-as-perspective doesn’t. Furthermore, one can’t experience one’s own limits because a limit would imply something outside of one, and one would then have to be there to know about it (which would mean it’s not outside of one.) The behavior of “seeing seeing from a perspective” is very important to the verbal community because it identifies an individual, but to the individual itself, “seeing seeing from a perspective” is not identifiable as a thing. For the person doing it, it is not observable and descriminable in the same way as all other events are observable. Hayes proposes that the “spirit” distinction is a tact, a verbal response to the behavior of “seeing seeing from a perspective”.  “Spirit” is the verbal behavior by which one identifies one’s self; it is not “immaterial being”.

Problems arise from traditional definitions of “spirit” as “immaterial being” or “being distinct from physical”. Such definitions seem to imply a duality rather than a limitation of verbal response. Only verbal organisms can create a matter/spirit distinction, but the original distinction has been forgotten and the verbal community reinforces the implied duality as if it were self-evident. Furthermore, for many of us, “spirit” has come to mean the mental realm and therefore the realm of verbal behavior and of ideas and concepts that are part of a verbal system. Because our verbal system supports it, we can believe that our ideas and concepts are more “true” and “real” than the events and stimuli to which they are a response.

Verbal systems create other problems also. Control by rules, or verbal stimuli, can create an insensitivity to changes in direct or natural contingencies. Our verbal behavior can control us in such a way that “the demands and expectations of the dead past or imagined future” (Keyes, K) seem more real to us than the present moment. Indeed, we sometimes cannot even contact the present moment to see that what is happening is very different from the past moment to which we are responding. For example, once we have learned that “people will laugh at me if I make a mistake”, we may not even recognize that we are now in an encouraging and supportive environment.

Distinguishing the verbal behavior of “self” (i.e., seeing seeing from a perspective) from other verbal behavior can undermine the controlling power (“truth”) of words and permit more creative behavior to emerge. This distinction has greatly affected my life since graduate school. When disappointment at not finding work seemed overwhelming, I was able to see that no matter how I felt, attributing it to my work situation was just a bunch of words, not a representation of reality.   I was able to turn my attention to what was there for me in the present. As it turned out, those 10 years have been the best 10 years of my life — at least in terms of enjoyment and appreciation of being. _____________________________________________________________________________________________

Verbal behavior, language, is a cultural phenomenon.  Culture controls language and language controls culture.  That interaction can be very confusing, especially with respect to knowing oneself.  Alan Watts, in The Individual As Man/World, discusses the difference between the way culture trains individuals to experience themselves and the way individuals are described by sciences such as Biology, Ecology, and Physiology. Culture trains an individual to experience itself as “a center of energy and consciousness which sometimes manages to control its environment, but at other times feels completely dominated by the environment.” On the other hand, science describes the individual “not as a freely moving entity within an environment, but as a process of behavior which is the environment also.” Watts says that he believes if would benefit mankind if humans could experience themselves in the way described by science.

In the article, Watts extensively quotes Skinner from Science and Human Behavior to illustrate his points. He concludes his discussion of Skinner by saying “the individual organism is the particular and unique focal point of a network of relations which is ultimately a ‘whole series’ — I suppose that means the whole cosmos. And the whole cosmos so fucused is one’s actual self. This is, whether you like it or not, pure mysticism.” Whether or not Skinner’s position is “mysticism”, I think Watts’ comments illustrate why Skinner’s philosophy helped me make sense of my experience of “This is It.”  Seeing myself as a focal point of a network of relations – including verbal behavior – means that “I am the world around me rather than what I’m thinking.  Seeing language as verbal behavior rather than as a representative of reality helped me attend to the “world that is” rather than to the behavior going on inside my head. For me, attending to the “world that is” is meaningful work. For me, “This is it” means that I learned to appreciate the beauty and goodness of the present moment — and to realize that it’s there for everyone.

I’m fortunate, of course, that I wasn’t forced by financial necessity to find paid employment. Many people have to take undesirable jobs and many others go for long periods of time without gainful employment. From my point of view, such people may be “working” harder than the rest of us. Their work may consist in making the best of things until they can find (better) paid employment. It may consist in remaining cheerful and confident in the face of criticism and setback. In any case, the challenge of “this is It” is there for them.

It seems to me that “This is It” was the attracting philosophy of the hippies and other counter-culture movements. It was a way to appreciate and to live in the present moment. It was a way to be able to enjoy what is good today even though there are no guarantees for tomorrow. It was a way to know oneself not based on superior status or power relations. It was not so goal-oriented that one could no longer listen to oneself. Rather, a person was encouraged to know what he wanted so that he could choose to work for it if possible instead of working for what he “should” or for what is convenient. There was much to be seen in it that was beautiful and good.

Unfortunately, the movement had some very negative effects. Some people “lived in the present” at the expense of others. Some people took advantage of the innocence and idealism of others. Some people fell into new power and status relations as they gave up their old ones. There was much to be seen that was not beautiful and good.

What happened? Did it have something to do with “evil”? What about “evil”? How can the beauty and goodness of the present moment be there for everyone on this planet as long as “evil” exists? That’s the subject of the next chapter.